Saturday, April 28, 2018

Springtime Warrior

We finished our third day of branding yesterday. Thank goodness for good friends that like to come help. Now it can blow and rain for a few days. 

We recently added new livestock to the ranch – honeybees. A local producer parks his hives on our property every year in early spring. They love the willows and box elder trees that live on our ranch. The box elder, a short lived maple regarded as a nuisance to many, is full of drooping blossoms and the tree canopy over the dog houses is alive with buzzing. Box elder wood is weak and the tree harbors the rust colored bugs that gather every fall to launch an attack to come inside our homes. But hearing and seeing how the bees use the trees, I have a new appreciation for them. Our bees, whether farmed or wild, need food as they emerge from hibernation and we’re happy to oblige.  

We've been burning piles of Russian olive trees that we cut last year. The tree is invasive and covered in thorns. My arms are scratched up from handling them. We have finally learned that you cannot cut down an olive without applying an herbicide to kill it. It can be done very strategically just inside the bark around the cambium layer. As it says on a youtube video put out by the extension service - cutting the trunk just makes them mad - because they re-sprout in a thorny fanfare of growth that makes it nearly impossible to get close to them. Lesson learned.

We also use fire to burn old growth and tumbling weeds out of our irrigation ditches to get ready for water. We're careful to burn only what’s necessary because we know the value of plant life, old and new, to stabilize banks and provide cover for wildlife. Still in some places it’s impossible to control entirely and it travels out of the ditch bank. The other evening at dusk, we noticed a dead tree smoking behind us and knew that it was burning inside. I went home and got the chain saw and a weed sprayer filled with water. Mark cut down the tree and wet it thoroughly so we could sleep that night.

In the midst of all this, the herd is still calving and Mark is still watching for sick calves. We had another set of twins that needed brought in to bond as a threesome. We laid the babies on the 4-wheeler rack and coaxed the mama to follow them in to the barn on an especially cold and windy morning.

At the end of each day I get tired and discouraged because of all the work to do on a ranch in the spring. Then by the next morning I’m ready to go again. There’s a yellow sticky note on my bulletin board that reads, “oh, crap, she’s up.” It’s supposedly what the devil says when good women arise each day to do battle. Good to keep in mind.

see the bee?

ours is a burning affair

olive control

one twin under a blanket to keep him from getting up

one twin needs colostrum supplementation 

The Critical Role of Ruminants

Previously  published as commentary in the Idaho Falls Post Register, April 27, 2018.

As cattle ranchers we’re accustomed to criticism. Grazing is seen as an extractive industry even though grass grows back and thrives when properly grazed. Beef is seen as unhealthy, when it’s one of the most nutrient-dense foods we can eat. Animal rights advocates want our heads and fake meat aims to fill the protein case.  

But still we were shocked to read a New York Times Opinion piece promoting a carbon tax on beef. So climate change is our fault as well? What the reader doesn’t realize, however, is the breathtaking reductionist thinking of this premise.  
Ruminants emit methane, a potent greenhouse gas, but ruminants are on earth for a reason and have played a critical role in the cycling of plants for eons. In brittle environments - those with seasonal moisture - grazing animals have a symbiotic relationship with grass. And grass is the most ubiquitous, life giving, soil anchoring protector of the planet we have.

Grass needs periodic removal. The growth point is near the soil surface and the plant needs a grazing animal or other disturbance to remove old growth.

Tragically, for many thousands of acres annually worldwide, that disturbance is fire, used to provide a clean slate for new growth. Instead of using grazing animals which provide an economic return, the land is burned, releasing tons of carbon into the atmosphere needlessly. Of course, closer to home in the West, wildfire is the greatest threat to healthy ranges and grazing is a readily available tool to reduce the fuel load.       

Grazing by hooved ruminants affect the soil surface positively as well. The chipping of soil makes a seedbed, old growth is pushed down as litter to moderate temperatures and slow erosion, and dung and urine are deposited.  

Taking the long view, herbivores’ unique niche provides for other living beings in an ingenious way. Most of the world is like Idaho and has a short growing season. In these climates, herds of herbivores take the bounty of that green season, convert it into muscle (and milk) and make the energy and nutrients produced by plants available to meat eaters the rest of the year.

It’s estimated that 60% of the earth’s landmass is unsuitable for cultivation – a perfect job for ruminants. Alarmingly this land is turning to desert in the U.S. and around the world partially because of the lack of periodic grazing and hoof action. Desertification releases carbon, therefore climate change and degraded landscapes are tightly linked.

Can the modern beef industry do better? Of course. We need to educate ourselves and do all we can to cycle carbon through smart, time-controlled grazing. We need to promote biodiversity in our pastures and refine and rethink the feedlot model.

I suspect I share a similar worldview with the author of the piece in the Times. We both care about our fragile planet. But those who vilify beef walk a dangerous line. We are intimately dependent on natural cycles, despite the breadth of modern technology. Removing a ruminant actively managed by man that can regenerate degraded landscapes is foolhardy. 

turning what we can't digest into nutritious food

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Wind for Sale

We’ve been pummeled for days by high winds, which get to Mark more than any other weather extreme. For one thing he wears contacts and he’s always fighting his eyes. And a cold wind - which it always is - is hard on calves. Mark is doctoring a few for scours right now. He hasn’t lost any, but it’s only because he monitors them constantly (and luck he tells me). He treats them with liquids and usually after a couple of treatments they’re back to healthy. The constant tending and worrying is stressful. I tell Mark he can’t save every calf, but he doesn’t hear me.  

Feeding the cows their daily ration in the wind is miserable too. Anna and I fed the last two Sundays to give the regular crew a break and oh, how I appreciate that regular crew! Anna had straw drilled into every pore and every crease in her clothing.

Mark has put a million miles on the 4-wheeler this spring. It’s really good for checking cows and for tagging babies. He can park in the midst of the herd, turn off the machine and walk from calf to calf in the quiet, putting a tag in one ear and administering a couple of vitamin/mineral shots with little stress on the calves. He has honed his methods so that the mother cow accepts him and the whole herd stays calm. The 4-wheeler doesn’t need saddled and doesn’t leave him when he dismounts.

That’s all fine and good, but the 4-wheeler will be the death of the saddle horse. Horses need to be ridden just like the ranch wife needs to ride - to be in shape for the long days of trailing cattle ahead. We need to be needed. Mark and I ride a little this time of year, but not enough to get around the 4 head of horses that need ridden. I tell Mark it’s okay. He’s got too much work to do to beat himself up for not checking cattle on a horse. We just need to face facts and figure out how to get the horses handled enough to be safe when we need them. 

Today has a slow motion feel. The grass is green, budding is well under way and my one clump of daffodils is in bloom. But at only 38 degrees we all wait. I saw in my diary that it was 78 degrees on this date last year and we were in a hot-weather frenzy. But for today, 2018, spring is on hold.